Design Critique: The FOIA Electronic Reading Room of the CIA [website] (Or: Better Design as a Key Issue in Public Access to Government Information)


The Central Intelligence Agency’s (CIA) FOIA Electronic Reading Room ( is a section of the CIA’s overall website dedicated to providing public access to CIA documents that have been released under Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and/or other information release mechanisms. This section of their website hosts a number of digital/scanned agency records and provides access to these records to the public via links and search tools. Where some federal US agencies provide only static lists of agency documents in their FOIA Electronic Reading Rooms (see, for example, the FOIA Library website of the Department of Justice), the CIA has an interface that is intended to provide more sophisticated search options to facilitate document access.

Background on FOIA Electronic Reading Rooms

Electronic Reading Rooms that provide copies of agency records to the public have been required of US federal government executive-branch agencies since the amendments to US FOIA law in 1996. Known as the Electronic Freedom of Information Act or E-FOIA, these amendments were an extensive re-working of FOIA to accommodate new technology, address concerns that electronic agency records might be getting destroyed or lost, and address new potentialities for providing public access to government information through then-emerging digital circulation technologies. Executive-branch government agencies were mandated to provide access to their most frequently requested documents via the Internet through this amended law, with the lawmakers’ intention to improve the public’s ability to access records that had already undergone declassification review and release — though this vision of greater access is not yet fully realized in practice on many federal agencies’ websites.[1] The CIA’s FOIA Electronic Reading Room is one effort toward compliance with this law.

Design Critique Focus: Document Search Functions

Though a full review of the comprehensive CIA Internet presence could provide interesting feedback for potential website re-design, the design critique below focuses on elements related to searching for CIA documents and how design elements of the currently configured CIA FOIA Electronic Reading Room might better facilitate user experience in government information accessibility.


The website’s document search interface has several successful attributes. The general design and functionality choice of offering users several different search tools — a general keyword search bar which searches based on the full text of the documents, an “Advanced Search” screen that presents the user with multiple options for searching different aspects of CIA documents based on document metadata (for example, date, title, original classification level, etc.) and a “FOIA Category Search” which lets users access subsets of documents by document categories — gives users who want to examine the records of the CIA a good array of choices for discovering their records of interest. However, the site’s functionality could be greatly improved through a usability evaluation and re-design. In the search interface, four elements are particularly in need of improvement — three within the different forms of search navigation and the fourth in the search results interface. The discoverability issues in these interfaces generally fall into the categories of unclear signifiers and inadequate feedback.


Critique 1: Signifier Issues in Left Sidebar / Navigation

One design element where signifiers are unclear is in the left-hand sidebar navigation list of links. The left-hand sidebar would benefit from having more clearly defined link titles and separating links into subgroups by their purpose. Currently, the links under the “Freedom of Information Act Electronic Reading Room” sidebar section include both links to pages of information about CIA’s FOIA processing itself, such as “How to File a FOIA Request,” and links to highly requested subsets of actual agency records. This mixing is likely to cause confusion for users. The recommended design change to resolve this issue would be to create subsections within the left-hand sidebar that would clearly demarcate and separate links to pages of general FOIA/”How to” information from links to pages of frequently requested CIA records.


Critique 2: Signifier Term-Destination Confusion in “Advanced Search” 

The “Click here” terminology at the top of the Advanced Search page of the site could cause confusion for the end user because what the on-screen text indicates as the destination of the link does not match the actual link destination. On this screen the user has already navigated to the Advanced Search options, yet text directly under the page title states “Click here for Advanced” (where “here” is a hyperlink) and then, on a separate line underneath, “Search Help.” The link implies it will take the user to even more advanced CIA agency record search options but it instead navigates to the user help page on advanced searching. This is likely a simple programming error that introduced separation between the two lines, as the intention of the link would seem to be to guide users to help tools. A recommendation to improve this interface would be to choose a less text-based, more icon-based symbol to indicate that pages of help tools are available to users — such as circle containing a question mark or letter “i” with explanations on mouse hover that their links offer access to help pages — and utilize that symbol to facilitate navigation to help tools throughout the site. 

Critique 3: FOIA Category Search Screen — Unclear Terminology/Signifiers

On the FOIA Category Search screen, the category terms displayed through which to reach subsets of CIA records are likely not intuitive for users. These assume high levels of user familiarity with agency jargon and document handling. For example, the abbreviation “NIC” is frequently used but its meaning (National Intelligence Council) is left unexplained to the public user. In addition, date categories include “Release Date” and “Post Date” as two separate record set filters, yet how these dates are differentiated is left unclear. This area of the website would benefit from using clearer signifier terminology combined with additional information about each category provided to users on mouse rollover of the category terms. Developing clearer signifier terms through direct user feedback, such as through layperson focus groups, would be particularly useful in improving the design of this area of the site to better understand user expectations.

Critique 4: Search Results Page — Unclear Feedback & Options

A crucial aspect of the website needing improved design is the search results presentation. The current results presentation lists documents and collections in the center area of the page with sort and filter options in the right-hand sidebar. The presentation of the sort and filter options is difficult to read and navigate. Recommendations for improving this design include: changing the title of the results list from “FOIA” to “Search Results”; moving the indicator of the number of results (“Search found [x] items”) to the very top of the results list; moving the set of sort and filter options to the top of the results list (under the total number of results) and presenting these as expandable option sets, where the user could first understand at a glance that sort and filter options are available through indicators such as a brief phrase with an expandable menu/area, and users could then see the full options for filtering and sorting by activating these expandable areas; a differentiating background color or text color for the search/filter options versus actual results might also aid users.


Conclusions and Implications of the Design Critique

In his influential book, The Design of Everyday Things,[2] cognitive scientist and usability engineer Don Norman discusses the psychological phenomenon of “learned helplessness” (p.62) as it applies to design and usability. He describes learned helplessness in the design context as a state that may develop when a user is unable to complete a task multiple times, resulting in a sense of inability to ever complete the task. This can lead to the avoidance of attempting to complete it in future. Learned helplessness has particular dimensions in the context of access to government information — if the public experiences repeated failure when attempting to access the government agency records to which they have a legal right, they may be less likely to continue attempting to access records and give up in practice the information that they have the right to in theory. There are sociopolitical implications in the need for good design of public access tools to government information in a democratic system where design and technology can support citizen empowerment and government transparency. Improving the user experience of government information seekers could potentially result not only in improved access to information for the public but also increased citizen participation.


1. National Security Archive. “Most Agencies Falling Short on Mandate for Online Records” Mar 13, 2015.

2. Norman, D. (2013). The Design of Everyday Things: Revised and Expanded Edition. New York: Basic Books.